When Sara and I talked about our school experiences last week, I had a hard time picking a grade that stood
out for me. Academically, I was good at “doing” school. I cared about my grades, I cared about being “smart”, and I longed for approval. Plus, I read voraciously. I had excellent organizational skills. I could sit still. I loved to write. If all else failed, I was an excellent memorizer-of-facts and follower-of-patterns. I was the student traditional schools were made for. Though I certainly had teachers I liked very much, I can’t think of an academic experience that I would call engagement-based or student-centered. I can’t think of a year that was transformational.
When I think about seventh grade in particular, I remember very little of the academics. I do remember reading The Tell Tale Heart in reading; I remember our science teacher covering the walls with butcher paper and letting us draw stars and constellations (not as promising as it might sound, as there was no guidance that I remember and weeks of very unscientific doodling. Later that year, we painted trash cans.). In math, we did long division practice. All. Year. Long. Academically, seventh grade was an unneeded review of fifth and sixth grades. I could have easily skipped it all together.
Seventh grade was, however, difficult for me in some standard ways. I was gawky and socially unsophisticated. My braces were heavy bands that surrounded every tooth and had large, protruding brackets that held a ridiculously thick wire. For two years, opening and closing my mouth - or God forbid smiling -brought on the urge to manually readjust my lips. Though I was spared the dreaded head-gear, for many months, I wore six rubber bands at a time, each of the six heave-ho-ing my overbite into an acceptable position when they weren’t taking a break in a sad clump on my lunchtime tray in the cafeteria. I had an awful haircut and all the wrong clothes. I was not, as the extremely popular neighbor boy helpfully announced at the bus stop one day, “a fox.”
In addition to all of that, which was bad enough, I was the new kid in school and a nerdy goody-two-shoes (an example: on my first day in social studies in seventh grade, I helpfully shared with the class that I had already finished our textbook the previous year). My father was in the Air Force, so I was accustomed to moving, but the transition into seventh grade was the first time a move was truly painful. This time the move was to a large public middle school in South Carolina where the popular girls dressed in expensive, preppy clothes from a store called Pappagallo and had long strings of add-a-bead necklaces and purses with interchangeable covers. My shirts didn’t have the Izod alligator on them, or even the JC Penney tiger (bad enough). They had a tree decal (ridiculously uncool). On my first day of school, I wore a flowery shirt with a rounded, babyish collar when it should have been a button-down oxford, and a pair of two-toned suede saddle shoes which should have been Nikes. Duh. I was promptly mocked by a girl who sat near me in reading (one row over, one seat up).
Still, it wasn’t all bad. Seventh grade was full of awkwardness and feelings of inadequacy, but there were counter-balancing forces. I made friends and at the end of the year, kids signed my yearbook. Lylas! * As an adult, I see my seventh-grade trials and tribulations as fairly ordinary.
Not everyone’s were. A different memory came to me this week, of another girl in my reading class that year (one row over in the other direction, two seats back) whose pain was immeasurably greater. I don’t remember her name. I must have known it. She doesn’t appear in the yearbook that we called an “annual,” not even as “not pictured.” I know this, because I checked this morning, after rummaging through boxes in the basement until I came upon my thin, hard-covered Hawks, one festooned with the requisite middle school girl rainbow sticker (the one I wish had indicated warm acceptance of all, but at the time just represented a tendency toward cute posters with overwrought messaging – if you love something, set it free! If it doesn’t come back, it was never meant to be!)
Though I was immediately mocked for my shoes and an assortment of other short-comings, I don’t remember anyone making fun of her. She had dark hair and I remember her as slight of build, and always looking down. I don’t remember ever hearing her voice.
Her face (and neck and arms?) had been badly burned. There was a rumor that acid had been thrown at her and that she was now in foster care, but I don’t remember who told me that or how they would have known. It is entirely possible that the real story was something very different. But her disfigurement was extreme enough, and upsetting enough, that even the kids didn’t talk about it. Think-Pair-Share was not a thing then (likewise, no Turn and Talk or Group Problem-Solving) and we sat in every classroom in rows that allowed a twelve-year-old girl to be left utterly alone, invisible.
I fear the adults didn’t know how to talk about it or what to do either. But hearing Sara’s story of the warm embrace of the adults around her when she needed them most makes me profoundly sad for the girl whose name I don’t know, who would have read The Tell Tale Heart with us, probably contemptuous of Poe’s pitiful horrors.
But of course, I don’t know anything for sure. Maybe the adults were doing things behind the scenes; maybe she was loved and cared for by her family, foster or otherwise. Maybe she has lived a happy life after the pain that was childhood. I hope all of that is true. But I also wish the adults had guided us out of our self-absorbed dramas and into empathy. I wish I could have been brave enough or kind enough on my own to talk to her. As a teacher now myself, I hope that I am always remembering, somewhere, in the back of my multi-tasking, here’s-what-we-need-to-accomplish-today brain to make sure no student ever, for reasons ordinary or not, feels invisible.
*love ya like a sis